Building a Juvenile Justice System for the Future. Presented to the Michigan Family Impact Seminar, Michigan State Capitol.
While many states have refashioned their policies, some continue to lock up teenagers despite declining violent crime rates. An analysis of the most recent federal data by the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice shows that only 1 in 20 arrests of young people are for serious, violent crimes like murder, rape or aggravated assault. About 80 percent of those taken in state custody are locked up for drug offenses, misdemeanors or property crimes.
The scale of incarceration is not simply a reaction to crime. It is a policy choice. Some lawmakers invest heavily in youth confinement facilities. In their jurisdictions, incarceration is a key component of the youth justice system. Other lawmakers invest more in community-based programs. In their view, costly confinement should be reserved for chronic and seriously violent offenders. These choices are critical for budgets and for safety.
As juvenile justice agencies explore the concepts of positive youth development, the National Program Office of Reclaiming Futures asked for a quick, verbal explanation of these ideas.
With funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice extended its program of research and technical assistance on juvenile justice realignment, or efforts to shift programs and resources for young offenders away from centralized, state-run facilities and into locally-operated, community-based, and non-residential programs.
Reducing youth crime is a complicated business, and I think we all know that it takes more than punishment. If it were possible to stop crime simply by adopting policies that sound tough and by advocating more use of secure confinement, we would have succeeded by now. That strategy has been tried enough times for us to know whether it works. Decades of research tell us that it does not work.
Six communities in North Carolina collaborated to bring the Reclaiming Futures approach to agencies serving the needs of youthful offenders with drug and alcohol problems. The project worked intensively with the Reclaiming Futures National Program Office in Portland, Oregon and North Carolina sites selected by the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust to develop and demonstrate the Reclaiming Futures model in North Carolina communities.
Positive youth development could be an effective framework for designing general interventions for young offenders. Such a framework would encourage youth justice systems to focus on protective factors as well as risk factors, strengths as well as problems, and broader efforts to facilitate successful transitions to adulthood for justice-involved youth. The positive youth development approach supports youth in making successful transitions from adolescence to early adulthood by encouraging young people to develop useful skills and competencies, and to build stronger connections with pro-social peers, families, and communities). Young people engaged with trustworthy adults and peers in the pursuit of meaningful activities and the acquisition of new skills are more likely to build the developmental assets needed for a positive adulthood.
Researchers reviewed the scientific evidence behind positive youth development and proposed a theoretical and evaluative framework that could be used to build developmentally-appropriate interventions for justice-involved youth.